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A big weekend of AFL upsets

Our footy experts analyse the clash between St Kilda and Essendon, and Carlton's big win over Collingwood.

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DO COACHES make teams or teams make coaches? It's a perennial football question, one at times that is almost impossible to answer, but one worth pondering again after two crucial and surprising results over round 15.

It was a poor night in the box for James Hird and Mark Thompson, and the next few weeks might prove equally as testing, with the Bombers' run home tough to say the least. 

On Friday night, Carlton's Brett Ratten went from popular whipping boy to hero with the Blues' sizeable fan base with their 23-point win over Collingwood. The greater intent of Ratten's side than in its insipid loss to Hawthorn was clearly a major factor. But so were a couple of shrewd coaching and selection moves.

James Hird and Jobe Watson.

Grey area: Bomber coach James Hird was caught out by several of the Saints' moves. Photo: Getty Images

Ratten bit the bullet and gave one of the three ruckmen, Robbie Warnock, the heave-ho. That might have blown up in his face once Shaun Hampson went down, but it proved just the challenge Matthew Kreuzer required, and he responded in the fashion Ratten had predicted all week he would.

The biggest masterstroke was the use of regular backmen Nick Duigan and Dennis Armfield as defensive forwards, the pair not only thwarting Collingwood's trademark rebound, but conjuring five scoring shots and three goals to Duigan.

On Saturday night, Essendon was spanked by a very switched-on St Kilda, the steely focus of the Saints compared to their lacklustre opponent apparent very early. The Bombers had poor players everywhere. But there's an argument they got a pretty ordinary performance from the coaching box as well.

Perhaps no amount of tactical genius would have saved Essendon. But a series of questionable moves, starting at the selection table, didn't seem to help its cause.

With Stewart Crameri out suspended, and St Kilda having lost Jason Blake and Rhys Stanley, the Bombers could have loaded up with height. Having seen the way North Melbourne ran rings around the Saints, they could have opted for a full-on pace assault. In reality, they did neither, no obvious replacement for Crameri picked, and promising small man Corey Dell'Olio dumped, and Travis Colyer still cooling his heels.

Once the game started, Essendon was clearly caught on the hop, St Kilda's coaching smarts coming through in Scott Watters sending Nick Dal Santo to Jobe Watson, which might have been considered a possibility, and Leigh Montagna to Brent Stanton, which clearly no one outside the St Kilda camp had counted on.

Bomber Heath Hocking continued to try to take Dal Santo, the resultant two-on-one giving the Saints the midfield edge, as did Watson starting outside the centre square, which lost all the early drive that had won it last week's game against the Western Bulldogs by quarter-time.

The list of questionable calls grew, as did the the size of St Kilda's lead. David Myers, who has had a career-best run of form in midfield, found himself again stuck, ill-suited, in defence. Michael Hurley, struggling with his hamstrings from the start, got some help from emerging key defender Jake Carlisle.

But that failed on three fronts. Hurley's "string" eventually gave way, a likely month-long absence the result, Carlisle failed to have an impact up forward, and his absence from defence threw out what has been a settled backline.

Dustin Fletcher not allowed to play his usual marshalling role, continually being dragged up the ground as Cale Hooker struggled to cope with Nick Riewoldt.

Nathan Lovett-Murray has been an effective substitute for Essendon. As a four-quarter player against the Saints he was found wanting for impact or stamina.

This week's wearer of the red vest, Ricky Dyson, was also unable to make an impression.

It was a poor night in the box for James Hird and Mark Thompson, and the next few weeks might prove equally as testing, with the Bombers' run home tough to say the least.

Hurley, Crameri and the certain-to-be-suspended Hocking will be key absentees this week, and replacements have to be found with more discretion than seemed the case against the Saints.

These are the sorts of coaching decisions made each week. Most pass with little notice. Except when, like Ratten, you're under so much heat a mere show of animation in the box or bench, let alone a positional switch, is portrayed as some sort of definitive proof you lack the necessary coaching chops.

So credit to him for staring down the mob, pulling a little inspiration from the kitbag, and extracting from his team a victory that not only might have saved his bacon, but turned his team's season around.

Credit, too, to St Kilda's Watters, fast building a reputation, even in his first season, as one of the AFL's more shrewd string-pullers, and his side defying the widespread predictions of its immediate demise.

Essendon's tandem of a couple of the club's greatest names has already achieved plenty and has the Bombers on the right track.

But even a coaching "dream team" can occasionally have a nightmare.